The controversy surrounding an Oklahoma Muslim group’s historic participation in the Tulsa Veterans Day parade didn’t amount to a response that could have overshadowed the spirit of the event honoring the nation’s service members.
Members of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations gathered at Third Street and Greenwood Avenue early Wednesday to put finishing touches on their float, which would, along with Tulsa police, conclude the Tulsa Veterans Day Parade for the first time. By just after noon, they celebrated at the finish line and said they were glad for the support they had received.
The majority of spectators chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” as CAIR-Oklahoma members passed them, with many in the group thanking veterans for their service. Children cheered loudly as the group marched through downtown Tulsa, and an Oklahoma National Guard member approached participant Faatimah Elghazali to apologize for any inappropriate remarks she had heard or would hear.
Elghazali said the protesters on Wednesday paled in comparison to the Islamophobia she experienced after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Adam Soltani, CAIR-Oklahoma executive director, said security concerns almost prevented the group’s participation.
“We were actually informed last night by Mike Callahan, who is on the organizing committee, that we would not be allowed entry into the parade today,” Soltani said. “Then this morning that changed a little bit to say that we would be allowed but that we wouldn’t be allowed to have any signs.” Among the group’s signs was a banner stating, “In memory of many, in honor of all — Oklahoma Muslims thank our veterans.”
Soltani said Callahan went to the group’s float before the parade began and, after the group told him they condemned terrorism and related groups, said the signs were allowed to stay.
Callahan confirmed to the Tulsa World that he sent an email telling CAIR its members could not participate Wednesday because of the threats the association had received this month.
“I didn’t want to risk even one child getting hurt,” he said. “A lot of the people there were going to be children.”
But Callahan said that just before the parade began, he asked that the group disavow allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Once the members did so, he allowed them to participate but said, “If anybody gets hurt, it’s not on me.”
Some heckles were yelled Wednesday, but Callahan said he was glad no one was hurt. He noted that extensive security measures were taken to ensure safety at the parade.
Other signs displayed at the parade contained messages in opposition to the group’s participation. One group at Fourth Street and Boulder Avenue held papers saying “CAIR — hate and terror.” Jim Gilles, who called himself a preacher, displayed a sign that said “Every real Muslim is a jihadist.”
Two spectators stepped into the street in attempts to halt CAIR’s float from proceeding, and another man followed the group throughout the morning shouting insults through a megaphone while holding an anti-Muslim sign.
Police escorted one of the men who interrupted the parade off the road after he called CAIR’s role in it “a travesty” and yelled that it was “disrespect to our veterans.” He refused to identify himself to media and told an elderly man who tried to stop him that he was “an embarrassment” for defending them.
But such incidents didn’t shake Jim Rigsbee, an Oklahoma National Guard veteran, or his wife, Janna Rigsbee. Jim Rigsbee, who converted to Islam in February, marched with CAIR-Oklahoma carrying an American flag and said he wanted to thank veterans of all backgrounds.
“Islam is a religion of peace,” he said. “I just wish people, before they go off hating something, check things out. They might be surprised.”
Janna Rigsbee converted to Islam a month after 9/11 and said she knew the actions that day had nothing to do with the religion.
“You have extremists in every religion,” she said.
Soltani said Wednesday went better than he expected, even with the pockets of harassment. He said he did not expect such a strong two-week debate after news of CAIR’s participation went public but was happy to see that most people gave the group a warm reception.
“We’re not going to back down,” he said. “We’re proud of our faith. We’re proud of our country. We stand for what we believe in. We believe in America, and we believe in our religion, and we’re standing for both of those today.”